Studies in World Christianity 28.1

Oral, Print and Digital Cultures

A few years ago, Andrew Walls told me that he had once hoped to become a missionary to China. However, with the rise of the Chinese communist revolution, those plans were dashed, and he eventually made his way to Sierra Leone in 1957, followed by Nigeria in 1962. One wonders how the study of World Christianity would have been different if the doyen of the academic field spent his formative missionary years in China instead of Africa. Would he have had the same epiphany in Beijing or Shanghai or Wenzhou that he was ‘actually living in a second-century church’? When considering Confucianism or Daoism, would he likewise speak of the place of ‘primal religions’ in shaping the consciousness of another faith, be it Christianity or Buddhism? Both are undoubtedly possibilities. But perhaps, in this parallel universe, the area less likely to have developed would have been his recognition of the importance of oral cultures – a pervasive characteristic in his beloved Africa, but scantly recognised in China.

We must remember that eight centuries before Johannes Gutenberg revolutionised European print culture through mechanised moveable type, the early development of woodblock printing was already well under way in seventh-century Tang China. Like the European advancements of the Protestant Reformation, print culture in China facilitated the propagation of ideas – instead of the Christian Bible, it would be the printing of Buddhist and Confucian texts that codified doctrines and ritual practices. This has led one scholar of Chinese print culture to conclude that, ‘Prior to the nineteenth century, more books were likely written and published in Chinese than in any other single published language.’ This is not to say that oral culture has been absent from China or Chinese Christianity. Rather, it is to highlight how the dominance of print culture in China has often overshadowed the place of oral culture.

Contrastingly, with the modern missionary incursion on the African continent, many African vernacular languages were written down and Africans were taught to read their own languages in order to facilitate the spread of Christianity. The audacity of this new print culture had the potential of overriding the potency of African oral culture. Yet, as early as the 1970s, Adrian Hastings observed that ‘in the experience of vernacular prayer … and in the spirituality which grows up from such experience … the true roots for an authentic African Christianity will most surely be found’. Acknowledging this point, Kwame Bediako argues that ‘academic theological discourse will need to connect with the less academic but fundamental reality of the “implicit” amd [sic] predominantly oral theologies found at the grassroots’. For Bediako, it is not about prioritising oral culture over print culture, but about engaging both and seeing the best of what each brings to the development of African Christianity. Even Andrew Walls, mindful of his contemporary African context but commenting on the literary culture of the Graeco-Roman world, explains that early Christian books were ‘primarily for public reading … Even in this literary culture, the process of communication for most Christians was essentially oral.’

While scholars of World Christianity – and, especially, African Christianity – have pioneered such an appreciation of oral and print cultures, the academic field has been slow at recognising a new frontier introduced by the rise of digital technologies and the resultant development of digital culture. In what ways is the migratory dimension of World Christianity facilitated by digital communication technologies, leading to a re-imagination of Christian communities beyond the limits of geographic locales? How does the Christian message translate into digital media, whereby the digital space becomes a divine space in which God is seen to be working? What new modes are offered by digital culture for people to experience and perceive and practise the Christian religion? Finally, with the recognition of this newer culture created by the digital, how are we to see the richness offered by digital culture alongside the richness offered by oral and print cultures? These are not mutually exclusive realities, but intermingle in the ‘indigenising’ of Christianity.

This issue of Studies in World Christianity contains select papers from the 2021 Yale – Edinburgh Conference on ‘Oral, Print, and Digital Cultures in World Christianity and the History of Mission’, held (serendipitously) online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, followed by two additional pieces that connect to the general theme. In our final contribution, Emma Wild-Wood has penned an obituary for Andrew Walls, who passed away on 12 August 2021. It is appropriate that this issue of Studies in World Christianity includes a note remembering Walls. He was instrumental in the establishment of this journal in 1995, first edited by James Mackey. And whilst he did not write anything substantial about digital culture or technology, per se, orality, print and the core questions raised by the 2021 theme of the Yale – Edinburgh Conference – of the intermingling of culture and Christianity, the translation of the gospel, and the global expansion of Christianity – were all very close to his own heart and scholarship.

This is an excerpt from the editorial for SWC 28.1 by Alexander Chow, entitled ‘Oral, Print and Digital Cultures’.

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About Alexander Chow

Alexander Chow is a Chinese American, born and raised in Southern California. He completed his PhD in theology at the University of Birmingham, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Renmin University of China, where he was doing research in Chinese Christianity and teaching in the School of Liberal Arts, and joined the University of Edinburgh in September 2013. He is also co-director of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity and co-editor of Studies in World Christianity.

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